Palm Beach station staff pushes out chairman

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In a series of dramatic events covered avidly by local news media, the staff of Palm Beach’s public TV/radio licensee last month chased out the lawyer who was both its board chairman and chief executive officer for the last eight years.

Chairman Lewis “Dusty” Sang resigned the unpaid positions two weeks ago after WXEL employees went public with complaints about his high spending and autocratic ways.

President Sam Barbaro and development Vice President Anita Kirchen, who were suspended by Sang’s executive committee, are back at work at the Florida station, along with Cameron Harris, the assistant development director who was fired for acting as staff spokeswoman.

The major effect of the affair, Barbaro says, is that “we have opened the window and let the fresh air in.”

Though he now estimates the station faces a $174,000 shortfall, in part because of donor desertion during the strife, Barbaro is optimistic that WXEL will catch up.

“The public has been absolutely inspired to get behind people who will lay their jobs on the line for a cause,” says Laura Lee Mall, director of TV programming and production.

In the darker days of January [1992], a WXEL-FM pledge drive raised just $16,000 in two-and-a-half weeks. But since Sang resigned, a catch-up fundraiser on the radio station has brought in some $64,000 in five days. TV pledging began last weekend.

Sang was not accused of breaking the law–and was credited for his efforts as chair of WXEL while the former school-board FM station branched successfully into television.

“In my term, we raised $30 million,” he says now. “If that’s bad, I guess, hang me.”

But the staff, in an accusation drafted by its attorney, said Sang “has chosen to operate this public franchise as if it were his own, while at the same time raising money from the public pocket and tax dollars.”

A three-man independent panel appointed by Sang’s board found last month that his “stern and somewhat autocratic style” was inappropriate for a nonprofit and warned that nonprofits’ spending must be “beyond reproach.”

The panel — made up of a commercial TV station manager, an accountant and a lawyer — recommended that Sang resign and that the board split apart the jobs of chairman and c.e.o., which had been combined in the volunteer position under Sang’s leadership.

Sang, who says he has no regrets about his work as chairman/c.e.o., pictures this winter’s events as a mutiny inspired by 24-year WXEL veteran Barbaro. He says that Barbaro sought to hobble the board by limiting the lengths of directors’ terms, intimidate junior staffers into signing a petition against him, “seize power and report in essence only to himself.”

Not so, according to Barbaro and acting board Chairman Richard Kip, who say the revolt originated below the vice presidential level.

“The call for action came from the bottom up,” says Harris, who was delegated by staff and managers to ask for Sang’s resignation in January.

The break occurred soon after Jan. 6, when banker and former board member John Dover reported for work as executive v.p. of WXEL’s fundraising foundation. Hired by Sang’s four-person executive committee without advertising or consultation of top managers, Dover was to earn $85,000 a year.

Local newspapers delighted in revealing earlier expenditures for such things as the $750 ice sculpture for a fundraising gala …

Harris says the staff didn’t have to know the exact salary to be upset. “With his title it didn’t take a genius to know what kind of money he was making and that we couldn’t afford it,” she recalls. “From the volunteers to the camera operators to the secretaries, it was almost like a cry arose. It was like a gasp.”

Staffers contended that hiring Dover without advertising the opening risked FCC sanctions for violating equal opportunity hiring guidelines. Sang says there was no such violation.

Dover’s salary was not the first decision associated with Sang that had outraged some staffers. Local newspapers delighted in revealing earlier expenditures for such things as the $750 ice sculpture for a fundraising gala, the $3,600 publicity photo of himself in Civil War costume and the furniture — more handsome than what the state government offered — for which WXEL borrowed $300,000.

Sang directed managers not to raise questions with the board except through him, and his standard response to critical questions was, “That’s the way things are done here,” according to Barbaro. When Barbaro began to question the Dover hiring in December, he recalls, Sang said the case was closed.

When top managers met with individual board members, the managers didn’t express their views about the Dover hiring, according to Sang and Barbaro. It took a staff-wide uprising to raise the issue.

With a petition eventually signed by 55 of the 64 employees, the staff summoned Sang for a showdown Jan. 15.

As Harris remembers it: “I said to him, ‘Mr. Sang, earlier today, the staff took a vote of no confidence. On behalf of the staff, management and officers, we ask for your resignation immediately.’ He wanted to debate the issues.” The staff was beyond debating.

Two days later, Barbaro and Kirchen were suspended and Harris was fired. “The action taken by the corporation today ended the problems,” Sang told a Palm Beach Post reporter. The next day, a Post editorial headlined: “Sang should go for hiring his crony.”

Nine days after the showdown and a persistent battering in the press, Sang stepped aside temporarily while the board-appointed committee deliberated. As state legislators threatened to intervene, the panel convened an eight-hour hearing in a crowded WXEL studio, Feb 13.

“You couldn’t have scripted a better trial movie,” says Mall. “The local stations went to it live on their noon news.”

Calling the fight an “employee/employer grievance thrusted on the public,” Sang contended that he had needed the c.e.o. role to maintain tight control while pulling WXEL out of its financial woes of the early ’80s. (He and associates had walked into the 1983 annual meeting and voted themselves into 20 of the 25 seats on the board of directors.)

The panel’s verdict came in six days after the hearing, urging Sang to quit for the station’s image, questioning the way in which Dover was hired, calling for reforms (such as a smaller role for the executive committee), chastising Barbaro for taking issues to the public instead of the board, and suggesting that he and Kirchen be brought back, with their status to be reviewed in a year. Sang quit that day, Feb. 19, followed later by his brother-in-law and a third board member.

“I don’t believe mistakes were made, and I think the public trust was upheld,” Sang said of his performance in office.

The next day, the board began adopting the recommendations. It brought back Barbaro and Kirchen, with their hiring to be reviewed in a year, but took no action regarding Dover.

Volunteers at the station did. “A pack of volunteers just surrounded Dover in the hall and literally hounded him out of his $85,000-a-year job,” reported Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino. The fundraiser gathered his belongings and left the station.

Record-breaking radio pledge results have since then have buoyed staff morale, but relations between the remaining board members and management are not guaranteed to be cheerful.

Though the board has willingly accepted the term limits (two terms of two years) and other reforms advised by the investigators, according to acting Chairman Kip, he says the directors had seen “no compelling reason” to change Sang’s role or policies. “There was no perception on our part that the structure was broken.”

Kip, a Southern Bell lobbyist, declines to join the criticism of Sang’s rule, explaining that Sang had to leave only because his presence had “polarized” the community.

“One of the questions here, with regard to Mr. Barbaro and the senior staff, is their management ability and leadership,” says Kip. “Somebody asked the other day, how long are they going to stay? As long as their performance indicates they should.”

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